At rare moments of introspection for the famously self-centered president, Trump has also expressed to confidants lingering unease about how some in his orbit — including his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr. — are ensnared in the Russia probe, in his assessment simply because of their connection to him.
Yet in public, Trump is a man roaring. The president, more than ever, is channeling his internal frustration and fear into a ravenous maw of grievance and invective. He is churning out false statements with greater frequency and attacking his perceived enemies with intensifying fury. A fresh broadside came on Twitter at 11:37 p.m. Friday, mocking basketball superstar LeBron James and calling CNN’s Don Lemon “the dumbest man on television.”
This is the new, uneasy reality for Trump at an especially precarious moment of his presidency, with the Republican Party struggling to keep control of Congress, where a Democratic takeover brings with it the specter of impeachment, and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s grip seeming to tighten on the president and his circle.
Trump, who has decamped to his New Jersey golf estate for an 11-day working vacation, is at a critical juncture in the Russia investigation as he decides in coming days whether to sit for an interview with Mueller or defy investigators and risk being issued a subpoena.
“He’s more definitive than ever: This investigation should end now, and Mueller should put out what he has,” said Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney. “He doesn’t think they have anything, and he wants the country to move on.”
This portrait of Trump behind the scenes is based on interviews with 14 administration officials, presidential friends and outside advisers to the White House, many of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity to share candid assessments.
Trump appeared to stand in conflict with his own government when he blasted the “Russian hoax” just hours after his national security team gathered at the White House on Thursday in a rare show of force to warn that Russia is yet again trying to interfere in U.S. elections. But a White House spokesman said Trump instructed them to hold the news conference and was adamant that they explain what the administration is doing to safeguard the midterm elections.
The frequency of the president’s mistruths has picked up, as well. The Washington Post Fact Checker found last week that Trump has now made 4,229 false or misleading claims so far in his presidency — an average of nearly 7.6 such claims per day, and an increase of 978 in just two months.
The campaign trail — where Trump held three mega-rallies in five days — has allowed him something of a respite, a chance for the reality-TV-star-turned-president to repackage his anger as something more campy, delivered with a showman’s élan.
On Thursday night, the president turned a Pennsylvania rally to support Republican Senate candidate Lou Barletta into a Trumpian grieve-fest, returning repeatedly to his favorite foil — the “fake, fake, disgusting news,” as he bellowed — to portray himself as a victim of chronically unfair coverage from “horrible, horrendous people.”
“The president is rightfully frustrated,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Thursday, going on to argue that “90 percent of the coverage on him is negative.”
Trump’s indignation with the Mueller investigation has long been evident, but it is boiling over with growing ferocity. He has tweeted the phrase “witch hunt” a combined 46 times in June and July, up from 29 times in April and May, and more and more he is calling out Mueller by name.
Trump’s lawyers say it is the president himself who is calling the shots in what is becoming an all-out public relations blitz to discredit Mueller.
“With his great feel for public opinion and how to deal with it, he has a sense about what would work, what to say,” Giuliani said. “He sort of determines the public strategy, and we get his approval and input for the legal strategy.”
Trump has told some associates that Giuliani has convinced him Mueller has nothing incriminating about him. “Rudy’s told him the other player is bluffing with a pair of 2’s,” said one Trump adviser. And Trump has latched onto Giuliani’s talking point that “collusion is not a crime,” believing it is catchy and brilliantly simplistic, according to people with knowledge of internal talks.
Still, Trump has confided to friends and advisers that he is worried the Mueller probe could destroy the lives of what he calls “innocent and decent people” — namely Trump Jr., who is under scrutiny by Mueller for his role organizing a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with Russians promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. As one adviser described the president’s thinking, he does not believe his son purposefully broke the law, but is fearful nonetheless that Trump Jr. inadvertently may have wandered into legal jeopardy.
In a tweet early Sunday, Trump called it “a complete fabrication” that he was worried about his eldest son. “This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics — and it went nowhere,” the president wrote. “I did not know about it.”
Trump also has seethed privately about the trial of Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman. As coverage of the trial played on cable television in a blinking loop all around him this past week, he kept hearing another name on the shows: Trump.
The president privately fumed to one friend after another — on Air Force One, in the Oval Office and over the phone — that Manafort “has absolutely nothing to do with me,” according to people close to him. Although Trump tells them he feels bad for Manafort, he also has been complimentary of Judge T.S. Ellis, who has asked sharp questions of Mueller’s prosecutors.
“He is completely outraged by the way Manafort has been treated, with the solitary confinement and all of that,” Giuliani said. “It’s obvious to him that they’re all but torturing Manafort in order to try to get him to flip.”
As Trump sees it, Mueller is aggressively prosecuting Manafort — detailing his alleged tax evasion and bank fraud scheme and flashing snapshots of his extravagant wardrobe for the jury — to deliberately embarrass Trump and undermine his presidency. And, according to people familiar with the president’s thinking, he believes the news media is complicit.
From his White House residence Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted that Manafort may be treated worse by the criminal justice system than Al “Scarface” Capone, whom he identified as “legendary mob boss, killer and ‘Public Enemy Number One.’ ” He later called around to some advisers asking what they thought of the tweet, proud that he had come up with the Capone comparison.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who has been discussing the case with Trump, said, “If after two years of investigating possible Russian collusion, the crown jewel is bringing charges against Paul Manafort, then one would have to ask, why did the FBI not embark on that effort without a special prosecutor?”
Trump on Wednesday took his complaint that his political appointees at the Justice Department were not protecting him and his family and associates from the investigation to a new level when he tweeted, apparently on a whim, that “Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now.” Trump’s lawyers later explained that the president was voicing his opinion, not giving an order, lest the presidential tweet provide Mueller fresh evidence of obstruction of justice.
Trump’s advisers said they never thought the president would actually move to stop the probe. “There is no desire here to have that whole sideshow,” Giuliani said. But they knew Trump would not let what he considers the unfair prosecution of Manafort and media coverage pass without speaking publicly.
One prominent Trump ally in the evangelical community, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., seemed to channel the president’s views when he later tweeted that Sessions was a “phony pretending to be pro-” Trump, a tweet that was circulated widely among Trump’s friends and aides.
For nearly 80 minutes on stage in a packed Wilkes-Barre, Pa., arena, where supporters cheered his flourishes and cut him off at the mere mention of Clinton’s name to chant “Lock her up,” the president was able to relieve some of his pressure with a combination of riffing and shtick. It was an act that, finally, he controlled.
Susan Price, 72, drove through pelting rain to attend — and, when the skies cleared as she pulled up at the arena, she saw symbolism.
“We want Trump to do exactly what he’s been doing and do more,” Price said. “And give him the encouragement to overcome all of the various forces that are trying to take him down, whatever their motives are.”
He is ramping up his travel schedule — a rigorous pace that he recently boasted would grow to six or seven days a week this fall — which will keep him in front of his adoring base. Midterm elections typically are referendums on the incumbent president, but by injecting himself so squarely at the center of this year’s House and Senate contests, Trump is further personalizing the Nov. 6 elections.
“The president is the single best messenger for the Republican Party, and every time he is on the campaign trail helping other Republicans win, it is a reminder to the American people of what this administration has been able to accomplish in a very short period of time,” said Corey Lewandowski, an unofficial Trump adviser who served as his first campaign manager.
Trump loves the frenzied, raucous energy of these events, and often leaves them buoyed, people close to him said. At times, when advisers have proposed a rally in several weeks, the president has agreed to do it — but suggested they hold it as soon as possible.
To the delight of aides, Trump also has become more disciplined on the campaign trail, keeping at least part of his focus on the candidate he is there to support, and often calling him or her onstage. Early on, Trump sometimes appeared at rallies where the local candidate seemed secondary — as in Alabama last year, where he famously delivered something of an anti-endorsement of then-Sen. Luther Strange, who looked on uncomfortably.
But advisers have impressed upon Trump the value of keeping his focus on the Republicans he is supporting, in part by showing him the positive headlines and articles in the local media that follow when he successfully stays on message.
There have been other signs of stability, too. After months of speculation that John F. Kelly would leave his job as White House chief of staff — fueled in part by Trump, who had been surveying associates about a replacement — Kelly announced Monday that he would be staying on through the president’s 2020 reelection campaign.
But while Trump settles in with Kelly, he increasingly is seeking counsel from outside allies who are urging a more combative approach to the Russia probe. He has been in regular contact with Meadows and Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity, while Lewandowski and former deputy campaign manager David Bossie accompanied him on Air Force One to Tuesday’s rally in Tampa, where Trump publicly praised them.
Trump made a surprise call into Rush Limbaugh’s radio talk show Wednesday to congratulate the conservative icon on his 30th anniversary on the air. Trump mused aloud with Limbaugh about whether it would be more politically advantageous for him to shut down the government over border wall funding before or after the November elections.
“I’ve heard a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, don’t do it before the election. We’ll upset the applecart,’ ” Trump said. But, he added, “I actually think it’s a great campaign issue. I think it would be great before.”
Philip Bump in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., contributed to this report.